Israeli Army Debates Combat Roles for Women – With Rabbis Who Fiercely Oppose It

Yaniv Kubovich
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Female IDF combat soldiers, in 2017.
Female IDF combat soldiers, in 2017.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Yaniv Kubovich

The Israel Defense Forces chief rabbi participated in Monday’s meeting of an army task force on integrating women into combat roles, despite the army’s promise that religious considerations wouldn’t influence the panel.

The other invitees were surprised to see Rabbi Eyal Karim at the meeting, since he hadn’t been on the list they were sent detailing the task force’s members. Another religious Zionist rabbi also attended the meeting, and several other rabbis have been invited to present their views at subsequent meetings.

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In response to Haaretz’s questions, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said the military rabbinate wouldn’t be involved in the task force, and that Karim isn’t actually a member of it. He merely attended Monday’s session because he has previously been involved with the issue of mixed-gender service.

Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi set up the task force last July to consider whether additional combat roles should be opened to women. He did so after the High Court of Justice ordered the state to respond to petitions by women who wanted to serve in combat positions that are currently closed to them.

Female soldiers and recruits who petitioned the High Court to be allowed to enlist in combat positions in the IDF, last yearCredit: Oren Ben Hakoon

The IDF promised at the time that the issue would be examined solely through the lens of professional considerations such as the army’s ability to carry out its missions and the health and safety of its soldiers. Religious objections to women’s service would not be taken into account, it said.

The task force has invited doctors, academics and former senior officers to give their opinions. But Rabbi Amichai Gordin of the Har Etzion Yeshiva also presented his views of women’s service at Monday’s meeting, and other prominent religious Zionist rabbis, including Rabbi Eli Sadan of the Bnei David pre-military academy in the West Bank settlement of Eli, will do so at subsequent meetings.

All of these rabbis have vehemently opposed putting women in combat positions, or any other positions where they serve alongside men, arguing that this violates the religious precept of modesty.

One of the non-rabbinical guests at Monday’s meeting was Dr. Idit Shafran Gittleman, head of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Military and Society Program. She submitted a written opinion urging the army to “adopt professional selection criteria that are blind to gender and open all its units to service by men and women alike. This is the appropriate principle, embodying a substantive commitment to equality, that fits the proper social character of a democratic county.”

The IDF, she added, is apparently “one of the last organizations in which gender is a declared collective selection criterion.”

Shafran Gittleman said she was surprised to see Karim sitting alongside the task force members and told the panel that religious considerations related to modesty and separating the sexes shouldn’t be a factor in considering where women can serve in the IDF. “Preventing women from serving in certain units due to pressure from religious officials and fear that religious soldiers would refrain from serving in them is unacceptable,” she added.

The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said the task force was set up to examine the possibility of integrating women into additional combat posts “seriously and thoroughly, with a broad, comprehensive, in-depth perspective.” The panel is headed by the commander of the ground forces, Maj. Gen. Yoel Strick, and its other members include senior officers, both male and female, “who have relevant operational and professional expertise in a wide variety of fields.”

“Yesterday, the task force heard the positions of several civilians who have the ability to contribute to its work,” the statement continued. “The chief military rabbi isn’t a member of the task force. Because yesterday was devoted in part to the issue of mixed-gender service, the chief military rabbi was present.”

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